Eight-eyed robot blasts off for Mars
By Richard Stenger
Delta 2 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral, carrying a Mars-bound robotic rover.
(CNN) -- A NASA robot packed with eight cameras, geology instruments and super-rugged wheels roared into space on Tuesday, one of three missions headed to Mars this summer during the most favorable cosmic conditions in centuries.
The rover, named Spirit, launched atop a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, following two days of rain delays. An identical twin, named Opportunity, is scheduled to lift off the last week of June.
"Finally, the Spirit has left the nest and is heading to Mars," said Orlando Figueroa, NASA's Mars exploration program director.
The droids, which together cost $800 million, are expected to land on opposite sides of Mars in January.
Their geologic studies, scheduled to last three months, are designed to find physical evidence of water activity on Mars from billions of years ago, when the planet was thought to have been wetter and warmer -- and possibly inhabited by microbes.
"That's where we believe the records of life will be read," said James Garvin, NASA's chief Mars scientist.
Mars pull too strong for droid armada
Like surfers who have been waiting for the big wave, the spacecraft are riding to the red planet as Mars and Earth make their nearest pass to each other since prehistoric times.
As they orbit the sun, the two planets come into proximity every 26 months, offering ideal opportunities to launch Martian missions.
But during the alignment this summer, they will pass within 34.7 million miles (55.8 million kilometers), thought to be the closest encounter since Cro-Magnon man ruled the Earth.
"Mars is closer to the Earth than it has been in 73,000 years. I find that an amazing number," said Nagin Cox, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, California. Cox and JPL colleagues are working with the Mars Exploration Rover missions.
A closer approach won't take place until 2287, according to Sky & Telescope Magazine.
The rare alignment is an engineer's dream. It shaves months off the cruise to Mars. Normally such trips take 10 to 12 months, but these two missions need only seven months, according to NASA.
Since the planets are closer, the communications link between the rovers and Earth will be shorter, allowing faster transmissions back home.
The Mars Exploration Rovers are designed to function as roaming mechanical geologists.
"We're close enough and the geometry works out that we have an excellent data return. So that means we can bring more pictures, more information about Mars back to the people of Earth," said Cox.
Moreover, NASA is sending larger payloads than during other alignments in 2001 or 2005.
The individual rovers weigh 384 pounds (173 kilograms), about four times that of NASA's Pathfinder lander in 1997. Each rover is 4 feet 9 inches high (1.5 meters), 7.5 feet wide (2.3 meters) and 5.2 feet long (1.6 meters)
The alignment also attracted the attention of the European Space Agency, which on June 2 sent the Mars Express to the red planet, with an arrival scheduled in December. The mission includes a satellite orbiter and the British-built Beagle 2, a miniature lander.
Many attempts, few successes
Just reaching the red planet would be a milestone. Of about 30 attempts to reach Mars, only one-third have succeeded. Of nine attempts to land there, only three have succeeded.
A lot of people have had bad days on Mars. They don't call it the death planet for nothing.
-- Ed Weiler, NASA deputy administrator
"A lot of people have had bad days on Mars. They don't call it the death planet for nothing," said Ed Weiler, NASA deputy administrator.
NASA has the best track record. All three landings were by U.S. missions. But the U.S. space agency lost two Mars-bound craft in 1999.
One presumably crashed landed. And another burned up in the atmosphere because of a mix-up over metric and English measurements.
CNN Space Producer David Santucci contributed to this report.